ATandT Tells FCC Google Voice Blocks Calls to Convents, Health Clinics

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-10-15

Google Voice blocks calls from not only sex lines and free conference calling schemes, but from health clinics, congressmen a convent of Benedictine nuns, according a new letter from AT&T to the Federal Communications Commission Oct. 14.

Google Voice is the search engine's phone management service, a Web-based application that lets users ring home, mobile and work numbers through one number. The app also provides text messaging and other unified communications features, such as voicemail transcription.

While Google Voice cannot connect calls from one phone to another, its slew of calling features comparable to those of phone carriers makes it a target for old-line telcos looking to gum up a rival's works.

AT&T Sept. 25 sent a letter to the FCC complaining that Google Voice was blocking calls in rural areas. Blocking calls is a practice prohibited for phone carriers trying to avoid so-called "traffic pumping" businesses, where local phone carriers charge high fees to connect calls.

AT&T argued that by blocking these calls, Google reduces its access expenses, giving it an advantage phone carriers are prevented from enjoying and thus skewering the competition principles in U.S. network neutrality laws designed to ensure fair data flow on the Internet.

Google admitted blocking calls to adult chat services and free conference call arbitrage schemes, contending that as a free Web application, Google Voice is not subject to those rules forbidding call blocking. The FCC Oct. 9 sent Google a letter requesting more information about the application, whether it blocks calls, and how and why it does this.

Richard Whitt, Google's telecom counsel in Washington, D.C., turned on the FCC, noting that despite AT&T's efforts to besmirch Google the issue has nothing to do with network neutrality or rural America, but outdated carrier compensation rules that are fundamentally broken and in need of repair by the FCC.

Smelling blood in the water from the FCC's inquiry, AT&T ratcheted up the attack, alleging that Google has been less than candid about the types of calls it is blocking:

In fact, Google is blocking calls to, among others, an ambulance service, church, bank, law firm, automobile dealer, day spa, orchard, health clinic, tax preparation service, community center, eye doctor, tribal community college, school, residential consumers, a convent of Benedictine nuns, and the campaign office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Moreover, these are PSTN-to-PSTN calls, so regardless of how Google Voice is ultimately classified, the Commission has ample jurisdiction to order Google to stop blocking. More importantly, despite the efforts of Google and its supporters to obfuscate this issue, Google's call blocking is directly related to "net neutrality." Indeed, Google's power to block calls - as well as its ability to abuse its market power in search and other services - dramatically underscores why the Commission cannot rationally exempt Google or any provider of Internet-based information services.

How did Google respond? A Google spokesperson simply told eWEEK:

Google Voice is a free web application that manages peoples' existing phone numbers and isn't subject to the regulations that govern traditional phone carriers. Our sole intention is to isolate and restrict numbers only associated with traffic pumping schemes, like adult chat and free conference lines, which would impact our ability to offer Google Voice for free.

AT&T, which went on in its letter to rip Google for abuses of power in search and other areas, is hardly a conscientious objector.

The company has big stakes in the smartphone game carrying Apple's iPhone and Google is cracking into this market with its Android mobile operating system, abetted by U.S. carriers T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon Wireless. Raising a little hell for Google seems par for the course.

What is certain is that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski will have to seriously consider how to treat Web applications as he seeks to amend network neutrality laws.

Read more on this issue on TechMeme.

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